How to identify and prevent contract cheating

These tips and tools can make contract cheating less likely.
By Anslee Wolfe

Staff at Indiana University of Pennsylvania once received an unusual phone call. An upset woman calling from Canada told them that one of its students hired her to cheat for him but hadn’t paid her.

“The woman said, ‘I took an online course for one of your students, and I can prove it,’” recalled Lynnan Mocek, Ph.D., the university’s academic integrity liaison. “She indicated what the course was and sent pictures and a lot of things for proof.”

It turns out the student had paid someone $500 to take the course, but then the person he hired outsourced the work to the woman in Canada, who was not paid.

Unfortunately, catching students who engage in contract cheating is rarely this easy.

Contract cheating is carried out in many ways. Students may use an essay mill to write a paper, pay a classmate to complete part of an assignment, or hire someone to take a test.

“It’s an extremely thorny problem,” said David Rettinger, Ph.D., president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, which aims to combat cheating, plagiarism, and academic dishonesty in higher education. “And it’s really tough to prevent if you’re not taking active measures.”

Research indicates contract cheating is on the rise. Data indicate that, since 2014, an estimated 15.7% of students worldwide admit to having practiced contract cheating.

However, Rettinger, who is also an associate professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, notes that prevalence alone doesn’t capture the severity of the problem. That’s because even one student engaging in contract cheating can undermine the integrity of a university, he said.

Here are some ways faculty can help identify and combat the problem:

Detection software. Veronica Paz, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, submits written assignments through Turnitin’s Feedback Studio, a web-based software that helps detect plagiarism. It is helpful in cases of contract cheating in which the hired person has not submitted original work.

SafeAssign by Blackboard is another detection software. Typically, universities have a subscription to one or more of these services that faculty may access.

Paz lets her students know their written assignments will be compared with Turnitin’s database. “It’s not about tricking them. It’s more about [the fact that] we want them to learn and do their own work and earn the grade,” she said.

Turnitin recently released a new tool, Authorship Investigate, specifically designed to help identify contract cheating, said Bill Loller, vice president of product management for Turnitin. Authorship Investigate compares aspects of an assignment — including readability, punctuation, vocabulary, and changes in layout — to detect major differences in students’ writing style between papers, Loller said.

Personalized assignments. Rettinger suggests that faculty link written assignments to in-person activities. For example, you could ask students to do a 15-minute writing assignment in class elaborating on their paper topic or give an oral presentation.

When time allows, faculty can also have a one-on-one discussion with students about the subject matter of their papers, he said. While these conversations are meant to further explore the ideas they wrote about, they can also work as a means to detect cheating.

“If they can’t have an intelligent conversation about it, I’m going to be skeptical,” he said, adding that further scrutiny of a student’s work would be warranted.

Proctored testing. Proctor software, such as Proctorio, ProctorU, or Examity, offers features meant to deter cheating on exams, such as identification verification, automated monitoring, and/or live webcam monitoring, both Mocek and Paz said.

The software has tools for in-class proctoring that includes a feature to lock down a classroom’s internet access during exams, preventing students from using devices to search online for answers. It also allows for online proctoring, which is helpful when professors are teaching online courses while taking measures that deter contract cheating.

“The key is the flexibility for the students,” said Paz, who has used the software for both in-person and for online exams. “They can take the exam at any point during the open period if they use the proctoring software.” 

Some universities require students to take exams in person at proctored testing centers to help combat cheating, she added, which can be especially helpful in deterring students from hiring people to take tests for them. This approach can be problematic, though, if not all students have access to a designated testing center.

One solution, at least for smaller classes, is to use a program such as Zoom, a web-based software that offers videoconferencing. “There is a record feature and you can record the student taking the exam for the entire duration and review it later,” said Paz, who has used Zoom for off-site exams.

Focusing on the “why” behind assignments. Christina Olear, CPA, an accounting lecturer at Penn State Brandywine in Media, Pa., said she discourages cheating by highlighting the connection between the classroom and a successful career.

“I emphasize throughout a course that not engaging in the class could lead to future career struggles,” she said. “I also say, ‘Cheating in a class may carry you through a course — if it’s not detected — but it won’t carry you through a career.’”

Rettinger suggests using assignments that give students choices and allow them to have input into their learning. For instance, For instance, he may give five essay prompts and let students choose three to write about. Also, instead of exams, he gives weekly quizzes, which he composes based on questions that students submit.

“I think the best way to prevent cheating is to teach well,” Rettinger said. “That will have the side effect of helping students want to be authentic in their learning, which is the opposite of cheating.”

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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